After much debating, procrastinating, quantifying, & a little bit of rereading, it’s time for some (self-indulgent) end of year list making. For the 5th annual Catapult Notable List, I have narrowed the best books that I read in 2010 to a tight top ten list – to be suspensefully revealed one-a-day for the next 10 days. I’m keeping this to books that were first published in the US this year, which eliminates a few great ones that I read, like American Rust by Philipp Meyer, The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch, and Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Also, deciding which ones make the cut is always a little tough and some really good books – like John Burdett’s The Godfather of Kathmandu, The Black Minutes by Martin Solares, The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke, and Bandit Love by Massimo Carlotto – get left on the cutting room floor. Not to mention, The 9th Judgment by James Patterson was obviously the best book I have read all year – this should go without saying, thus it has been left off the list. However, like last year, in the interest of dragging this thing out as long as possible, there are several also-rans that I think deserve some recognition – a notable list for the notable list, if you will. So, before the real list commences tomorrow, here are some others that you should be reading:
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
A strange book that caught my eye because of the abundance of international awards that it received prior to even being published – namely the Philippines’ top literary award, the Palanca Grand Prize and the Man Asian Literary Award. Imagine an unpublished manuscript winning the Pulitzer… Syjuco manages to deftly drop a century’s worth of Philippine history into this, while maneuvering around the central plot of a young writer’s search for his country’s most celebrated author. It’s one of those novels that plays with narrative, hovering on the brink of distraction or even detriment, only to have it cleverly reeled back in by the author to provide a shocking, revelatory ending. I can’t give away any more than that, but I promise you that if you stick it out until the end, through all the twists and turns of narration, you will be rewarded. But don’t trust its young narrator too much – he just might be lying to you…
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
Steinhauer’s followup to last year’s The Tourist continues the adventures of recovering CIA deepcover operative, Milo Weaver as he tries to untangle himself from his own complicated life. This is the life of the modern, post-9/11 spy – devoted family man & leg-breaking killer all wrapped up into one messy package. A blistering pace, sharp dialogue, vibrant characters, & a riveting complexity makes for a brilliant addition to this oft misappropriated genre. Olen’s previous series of under-appreciated Eastern bloc detective novels are some of my favorites, so the critical & commercial success of the Milo Weaver books is pretty awesome.
Holy Water by James Othmer
Othmer’s hilarious novel of one man’s battle with conglomerate super-companies taking over the third world, strikes a perfect balance between uproarious absurdity and the dire seriousness of rapid globalization. Henry Tuhoe, recently vice president of underarm research in the antiperspirant division of the giant conglomerate that he works for, is suddenly downsized (in his marriage, as well) and sent to the Kingdom of Galado to set up a phone bank for his company’s new bottled water division. Tiny Galado has a water problem to begin with (as in, there isn’t any) so the appearance of a bottled water company isn’t exactly welcome. Before chaos & anarchy ensues, Henry must decide whether to continue his spiral of self-pity or to step up and save the kingdom.
Zulu by Caryl Ferey
The full Catapult review. Zulu won France’s Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel in 2008 with good reason – it’s a flat-out brilliant crime novel, but ultimately it rings truer as an exposé of the current socio-political climate in South Africa. Ethnic Zulu, Ali Neuman is the quintessential product of apartheid violence – driven from his home after the brutal murder of his family, he has spent his adult life hiding his deep emotional scars working as a detective in Cape Town. But Cape Town is no place to hide – rife with shocking gang violence, rampant drug use, & a deep-seated hatred on both sides of the racial divide – we soon learn that no character is safe within the pages of Zulu. Férey delivers a terrifying, almost hypnotic look into a society that has struggled so hard to mask the dark underside of its history, only to leave it all simmering just below the surface.
The Devil by Ken Bruen
Denied entry into America, my good friend Jack Taylor is back on the booze & pills – not that this would dull his wits or be any sort of problem. In fact, he seems to have reached some sort of equilibrium within himself, until he is faced with his most sinister nemesis to date. Could this Mr. K be the devil ‘is own self? There’s no one better than Bruen and this is truly one of his best novels to date. Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of being in Jack Taylor’s company, you could step right in to the series here – Jack’s more than willing to accommodate you, but just don’t expect him to buy you a pint.
Panopticon by David Bajo
Bajo’s fantastic, dream-like second novel (The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri) explores both San Diego’s dusty southern borderland and the electronic network of cameras that are always watching us. Border reporter, Aaron Klinsman stumbles into what could be the story of a lifetime when he is clued into the fact that there is a vast network of watching eyes scattered all across our urban landscape. But who is doing the watching? And down the rabbit hole we go. The real star here is the balance between Bajo’s delicate, elegant writing & the crazy, almost insomniatic images that skip across Klinsman’s vision: mysterious luchadors in suits, motels that vanish overnight, warehouses filled with last season’s clothes, nymphs in Balboa Park. Is Klinsman even awake at all? Are we?
War by Sebastian Junger
Junger, the celebrated author of The Perfect Storm, spent a collected fifteen months entrenched with US Army troops stationed in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to get the story for War. At the same time, along with his colleague Tim Hetherington, Junger also shot reels and reels of video footage that would become the acclaimed documentary film, Restrepo. Now, I’m no ultra-patriotic flag-waver, but either way, whether you watch the film or read the book, it is important enough of a topic that every American needs to sit up for a minute and understand the circumstances our soldiers are facing in this absurd war. I felt that War, as a book, just sort of fizzled out as Junger’s time in Afghanistan came to an end, but the overall arc of the story is powerful enough that I would recommend it to anyone.
The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
With the exception of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, this was the book that we could barely keep in stock at the store this holiday season. (There are a lot of SD surfers with moms in La Jolla, I guess.) Even with the doe-eyed star-gazing that Casey does with big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, her journalism skills are strong and she creates a superbly compelling narrative by combining the Laird’s philosophy of oceanic respect with first hand big wave experiences and (an all-too brief) study on why 100-foot waves are more common now than ever before. Never turn your back on the ocean, friend.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Journalist Vaillant weaves together the fascinating history of the Far East of Russia – an area I knew virtually nothing about – and the search for a remarkably intelligent, man-hunting, revenge-seeking Siberian tiger. The moral herein: don’t steal food from a tiger and if you shoot him, make sure he’s dead. A fascinating, extremely well told story, made all the more compelling by the truth of it all.
The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today by Ted Conover
Conover’s first book in over a decade is a series of 6 loosely linked essays about the culture of the road across the globe – how those roads connect us, divide us, and alter our world, for good & for ill. Conover doesn’t just report on a story, researching from afar, he fully immerses himself in the issue, no matter the circumstances or discomforts. Riding with ambulance drivers in Nigeria, trucking mahogany out of the forests of Peru, trekking on foot over frozen rivers in northern India – Ted has an unparalleled skill at giving the reader the sense of total immersion (see also his other books, Newjack, Rolling Nowhere, Coyotes.) This is not pedestrian journalism here – his life is often as in danger as you would imagine it to be in such rough corners of our world, which makes for some pretty riveting reading.
Check the Catapult tomorrow for #10 of 2010.